Tag Archives: health

‘Lava haze’ and ‘vog’: toxic volcanic gases prompt health fears in Hawaii

Three dozen tourists were gathered at the Wailoa Sampan Basin Harbor in Hilo, Hawaii, hoping to get a glimpse of the lava that they’d seen on the news for weeks.

But because Hawaii Volcanoes national park – often a key stop in travelers’ itineraries – was closed after Kilauea erupted, their best hope on Monday afternoon was taking a boat to the point where the lava met the sea.

Some said they’d packed breathing masks, just in case the trade winds — which usually blow in clean sea air — changed direction and began blowing a lava haze, a noxious mix of gases and particles, their way.

Although many tourists to Hawaii island – the Big Island – choose to visit because of the active volcano, some have gotten more than they bargained for since the eruption. (Petra Wiesenbauer, who runs a popular Pahoa lodge near the park, had to hurry three guests out of the door while she and her neighbors fled the lava and toxic fumes.)

Up until lava crossed Highway 137 late Saturday night and entered the ocean, volcanic smog, called vog, which contains mostly sulfur dioxide and acid particles, along with ash, had been the biggest air quality concern.

But then the molten rock began pouring into the cool seawater and added clouds of lava haze or “laze”. Officials warned people to stay away since the plumes can travel up to 15 miles downwind, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

Toxic clouds rise up as lava from Kilauea volcano hits sea – video

The clouds form when hot lava boils seawater, creating tiny shards of volcanic glass and hydrochloric acid that then get carried in steam. The plumes can be deadly.

The USGS says on its website: “This hot, corrosive gas mixture caused two deaths immediately adjacent to the coastal entry point in 2000, when seawater washed across recent and active lava flows.” Hawaii civil defense cautioned people on Monday to “stay away from the ocean plume since it can change direction without warning”. In the case of laze and vog, store-bought respirators filter particles but not hydrochloric acid or sulfur dioxide.

Vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues, according to officials. Those with conditions like asthma or cardiovascular disease are most sensitive, as are the elderly, children and pregnant women, according to an interagency group of volcano experts. Even before the recent Kilauea eruption, Hawaii already suffered air quality issues from volcanic gases. The island of Hawaii has the highest sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the nation, according to EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi. And according to a 2016 report published in the scientific journal Environmental international, levels were “1,000 times greater” than the EPA’s definition of a major pollution source.

There has been a moderate increase in the number of people coming into Hilo medical center for treatment of vog-related symptoms since the eruption, according to Elena Kabatu, a hospital spokesperson. But she said that many more were likely experiencing the less serious effects of vog, such as dry eyes or a scratchy throat.

For those living in Pahoa, near the lava, conditions vary depending on whether the trade winds are blowing, residents said. Gilbert Aguinaldo, who has offered his vacant, central Pahoa lot to serve as a hub of locally organized community aid, said that volunteers were loaning out respirators and breathing masks to anyone who needs them.

Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues.


Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues. Photograph: Terray Sylvester/Reuters

“We are a little worried about the laze,” said Heather Lippert, 40, who was waiting to board the boat for the lava tour, “But I’m sure they’ll try to keep us safe.”

Vanessa Homyak, 36, said she and Lippert, who are from San Diego, had originally intended to stay at an Airbnb in Pahoa when they scheduled their vacation. But after the eruption began, the pair reconsidered. “We called the host and asked how things were,” she said. “They said, ‘If we were you, we would probably stay somewhere else.’”

They took the advice, staying instead on the other side of the island. But though they were out of the path of the lava, they discovered that they were directly in the path of the vog.

“We saw it when we flew into Kona, this big brown layer in the air,” Lippert said.

Erik Jacobs, who lives in Waikoloa, in the north-west part of the island and had just returned from a two-week vacation, said the vog was already irritating his eyes, making them feel dry and scratchy. He said his neighbors told him the vog was the “worst they’d ever seen” on the Big Island late last week.

‘Lava haze’ and ‘vog’: toxic volcanic gases prompt health fears in Hawaii

Three dozen tourists were gathered at the Wailoa Sampan Basin Harbor in Hilo, Hawaii, hoping to get a glimpse of the lava that they’d seen on the news for weeks.

But because Hawaii Volcanoes national park – often a key stop in travelers’ itineraries – was closed after Kilauea erupted, their best hope on Monday afternoon was taking a boat to the point where the lava met the sea.

Some said they’d packed breathing masks, just in case the trade winds — which usually blow in clean sea air — changed direction and began blowing a lava haze, a noxious mix of gases and particles, their way.

Although many tourists to Hawaii island – the Big Island – choose to visit because of the active volcano, some have gotten more than they bargained for since the eruption. (Petra Wiesenbauer, who runs a popular Pahoa lodge near the park, had to hurry three guests out of the door while she and her neighbors fled the lava and toxic fumes.)

Up until lava crossed Highway 137 late Saturday night and entered the ocean, volcanic smog, called vog, which contains mostly sulfur dioxide and acid particles, along with ash, had been the biggest air quality concern.

But then the molten rock began pouring into the cool seawater and added clouds of lava haze or “laze”. Officials warned people to stay away since the plumes can travel up to 15 miles downwind, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

Toxic clouds rise up as lava from Kilauea volcano hits sea – video

The clouds form when hot lava boils seawater, creating tiny shards of volcanic glass and hydrochloric acid that then get carried in steam. The plumes can be deadly.

The USGS says on its website: “This hot, corrosive gas mixture caused two deaths immediately adjacent to the coastal entry point in 2000, when seawater washed across recent and active lava flows.” Hawaii civil defense cautioned people on Monday to “stay away from the ocean plume since it can change direction without warning”. In the case of laze and vog, store-bought respirators filter particles but not hydrochloric acid or sulfur dioxide.

Vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues, according to officials. Those with conditions like asthma or cardiovascular disease are most sensitive, as are the elderly, children and pregnant women, according to an interagency group of volcano experts. Even before the recent Kilauea eruption, Hawaii already suffered air quality issues from volcanic gases. The island of Hawaii has the highest sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the nation, according to EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi. And according to a 2016 report published in the scientific journal Environmental international, levels were “1,000 times greater” than the EPA’s definition of a major pollution source.

There has been a moderate increase in the number of people coming into Hilo medical center for treatment of vog-related symptoms since the eruption, according to Elena Kabatu, a hospital spokesperson. But she said that many more were likely experiencing the less serious effects of vog, such as dry eyes or a scratchy throat.

For those living in Pahoa, near the lava, conditions vary depending on whether the trade winds are blowing, residents said. Gilbert Aguinaldo, who has offered his vacant, central Pahoa lot to serve as a hub of locally organized community aid, said that volunteers were loaning out respirators and breathing masks to anyone who needs them.

Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues.


Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues. Photograph: Terray Sylvester/Reuters

“We are a little worried about the laze,” said Heather Lippert, 40, who was waiting to board the boat for the lava tour, “But I’m sure they’ll try to keep us safe.”

Vanessa Homyak, 36, said she and Lippert, who are from San Diego, had originally intended to stay at an Airbnb in Pahoa when they scheduled their vacation. But after the eruption began, the pair reconsidered. “We called the host and asked how things were,” she said. “They said, ‘If we were you, we would probably stay somewhere else.’”

They took the advice, staying instead on the other side of the island. But though they were out of the path of the lava, they discovered that they were directly in the path of the vog.

“We saw it when we flew into Kona, this big brown layer in the air,” Lippert said.

Erik Jacobs, who lives in Waikoloa, in the north-west part of the island and had just returned from a two-week vacation, said the vog was already irritating his eyes, making them feel dry and scratchy. He said his neighbors told him the vog was the “worst they’d ever seen” on the Big Island late last week.

‘Lava haze’ and ‘vog’: toxic volcanic gases prompt health fears in Hawaii

Three dozen tourists were gathered at the Wailoa Sampan Basin Harbor in Hilo, Hawaii, hoping to get a glimpse of the lava that they’d seen on the news for weeks.

But because Hawaii Volcanoes national park – often a key stop in travelers’ itineraries – was closed after Kilauea erupted, their best hope on Monday afternoon was taking a boat to the point where the lava met the sea.

Some said they’d packed breathing masks, just in case the trade winds — which usually blow in clean sea air — changed direction and began blowing a lava haze, a noxious mix of gases and particles, their way.

Although many tourists to Hawaii island – the Big Island – choose to visit because of the active volcano, some have gotten more than they bargained for since the eruption. (Petra Wiesenbauer, who runs a popular Pahoa lodge near the park, had to hurry three guests out of the door while she and her neighbors fled the lava and toxic fumes.)

Up until lava crossed Highway 137 late Saturday night and entered the ocean, volcanic smog, called vog, which contains mostly sulfur dioxide and acid particles, along with ash, had been the biggest air quality concern.

But then the molten rock began pouring into the cool seawater and added clouds of lava haze or “laze”. Officials warned people to stay away since the plumes can travel up to 15 miles downwind, according to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory.

Toxic clouds rise up as lava from Kilauea volcano hits sea – video

The clouds form when hot lava boils seawater, creating tiny shards of volcanic glass and hydrochloric acid that then get carried in steam. The plumes can be deadly.

The USGS says on its website: “This hot, corrosive gas mixture caused two deaths immediately adjacent to the coastal entry point in 2000, when seawater washed across recent and active lava flows.” Hawaii civil defense cautioned people on Monday to “stay away from the ocean plume since it can change direction without warning”. In the case of laze and vog, store-bought respirators filter particles but not hydrochloric acid or sulfur dioxide.

Vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues, according to officials. Those with conditions like asthma or cardiovascular disease are most sensitive, as are the elderly, children and pregnant women, according to an interagency group of volcano experts. Even before the recent Kilauea eruption, Hawaii already suffered air quality issues from volcanic gases. The island of Hawaii has the highest sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in the nation, according to EPA spokesman Dean Higuchi. And according to a 2016 report published in the scientific journal Environmental international, levels were “1,000 times greater” than the EPA’s definition of a major pollution source.

There has been a moderate increase in the number of people coming into Hilo medical center for treatment of vog-related symptoms since the eruption, according to Elena Kabatu, a hospital spokesperson. But she said that many more were likely experiencing the less serious effects of vog, such as dry eyes or a scratchy throat.

For those living in Pahoa, near the lava, conditions vary depending on whether the trade winds are blowing, residents said. Gilbert Aguinaldo, who has offered his vacant, central Pahoa lot to serve as a hub of locally organized community aid, said that volunteers were loaning out respirators and breathing masks to anyone who needs them.

Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues.


Both vog and laze can cause eye irritation, skin irritation and respiratory issues. Photograph: Terray Sylvester/Reuters

“We are a little worried about the laze,” said Heather Lippert, 40, who was waiting to board the boat for the lava tour, “But I’m sure they’ll try to keep us safe.”

Vanessa Homyak, 36, said she and Lippert, who are from San Diego, had originally intended to stay at an Airbnb in Pahoa when they scheduled their vacation. But after the eruption began, the pair reconsidered. “We called the host and asked how things were,” she said. “They said, ‘If we were you, we would probably stay somewhere else.’”

They took the advice, staying instead on the other side of the island. But though they were out of the path of the lava, they discovered that they were directly in the path of the vog.

“We saw it when we flew into Kona, this big brown layer in the air,” Lippert said.

Erik Jacobs, who lives in Waikoloa, in the north-west part of the island and had just returned from a two-week vacation, said the vog was already irritating his eyes, making them feel dry and scratchy. He said his neighbors told him the vog was the “worst they’d ever seen” on the Big Island late last week.

NHS at 70: the health service is at a critical point in its lifetime

The Bible tells us our life span is “three score years and 10”. As the National Health Service prepares to pass that milestone, it seems paradoxically both held in higher regard and to be in greater danger than at any time since its founding on 5 July 1948.

Seventy years always looked a little on the optimistic side for the time of Moses in Psalm 90. Even in 1948, life expectancy for men was only 66 and for women 71. Today, though, it is 79 and almost 83 respectively, which tells you a lot about the problems the NHS faces in sustaining its founding principle of cradle-to-grave healthcare, free at the point of use.

We are set for a summer of celebration of the NHS’s 70th. There are crude party political reasons for this, on both left and right, but there is undoubtedly deep-rooted support – indeed, love – for the institution among the British people. Six years on, the NHS section of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics is still widely and fondly remembered.

Those dancing nurses and doctors struck a chord across the world, too. For the NHS is a system deeply envied by other countries for its universal coverage, its humanity and its value for money – and judged the best in the developed world by the Commonwealth Fund, a respected international thinktank.

That surprises many people in the UK fed a relentless media diet of “NHS crisis”, fuelled by political point-scoring and pressure groups’ hyperbole. Last winter proved no exception, but the show was kept on the road thanks to often heroic efforts by health workers and by pushing hospital bed occupancy levels far in excess of recommended limits. English hospitals met the target of maximum 85% bed occupancy for just three days over a month-long period, yet no emergency departments ever closed.

With some parts of the system warning that winter crises are becoming a year-round phenomenon, prime minister Theresa May has suggested she wants to mark the NHS’s 70th by awarding it a long-term funding settlement so it can better plan to meet the spiralling healthcare needs of the ageing population.

No figures have been mentioned, but the Nuffield Trust has projected that funding for the NHS in England alone needs to rise from its current level of £125bn to about £150bn by 2022-23 – £20bn more than currently planned.

Historically, the NHS budget enjoyed average 4% annual rises above inflation from 1948 until 2010. Since then, according to the King’s Fund thinktank, increases under austerity constraints have averaged 1.2%.

A £20bn boost would, of course, be affordable if the “£350m extra a week for the NHS” promised by some Brexiteers in the referendum turned out to be a real dividend of leaving the EU next year. Few in the health world are banking on it.

Reviews and injections of funding seem to come round regularly. Most recently, in 2014, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens agreed a five-year programme to make savings rising to £22bn a year by developing new models of care in return for a pledge by ministers to make good an £8bn annual funding shortfall.

Those new models, based in part on a US approach called “accountable care” whereby health agencies take overall responsibility for the wellbeing of a local population for a fixed per-person fee, have prompted fears of privatisation and triggered legal challenges which may yet force a halt pending new legislation.

While some see such a drift towards a more US-style health system as a real and present threat to the NHS, others see the bigger threat in the growing difficulty of satisfying rising demand for care within a wholly state-funded system, however much the government contributes. As the British Medical Journal has put it: “In the NHS’s 70th year, the debate is at a critical point about the service’s very essence and its sustainability.”

Can we continue to expect the NHS to meet all our needs? Are we prepared to accept the kind of radical changes that Stevens says are needed to modernise the system, including closure of some local hospitals? Are we willing to pay more so that the system can go on dealing with more than 1.4 million patients every 24 hours in England alone?

At least on the latter, apparently we are. New data from the authoritative British Social Attitudes survey show that 61% of us are ready to pay more tax for the NHS, up strikingly from 49% in 2016 and 41% in 2014. For the first time, more than half of Conservative voters say they would dig deeper.

These remarkable findings tell us two things: first, for all its flaws, the health service at 70 continues to be held in deep affection by the British people; and second, May has a following wind for whatever she has in mind by way of a birthday gift.

But history offers us a third and salutary lesson: politicans tinker with the NHS at their peril.

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Sussex health trust apologises for failings before death of student

A health trust has apologised “unreservedly” for failings in the case of a 21-year-old student whose body was found in a burnt-out car after she absconded from a mental health ward.

How Janet Müller, a German national in her final year at Brighton University, ended up in the boot of a torched Volkswagen Jetta is a mystery. She died from inhalation of fire fumes within hours of going missing. Christopher Jeffrey-Shaw, 27, was convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned for 17 years.

Speaking publicly about the young woman’s death for the first time, her mother, Ramona Müller, 47, said she blamed Sussex Partnership NHS foundation trust for errors that led to her “bright, intelligent and beautiful” twin daughter being able to abscond from Mill View hospital in Hove, twice in one day before her death.

It was not the first time a patient had climbed over an 8ft garden wall and it was a known awol risk, her mother said. “It’s just the first time it ended that badly,” said Müller, who raised Janet and twin sister, Selina, in Berlin.

She had allowed her daughters to come to the UK “because I thought it was safe there. They wanted to do it for their education. So, I tried my best to make it possible for them. I raised them on my own. And then, finally, someone just comes along and takes her life.”

Müller, who was studying international event management, had no previous mental illness but became unwell ahead of her final exams in March 2015, and was admitted to the hospital 10 days before her death.

Her twin, who was studying at Kent University, visited her there and reported her to be agitated and desperate to leave. Her mother said she begged staff to allow Janet home to Germany, or allow her to visit or speak to her. “I tried to call a million times, I tried to speak to Janet.” But, she says she was always reassured: “Janet is fine, she is safe, don’t worry,” and was told her daughter could soon be transferred to a hospital near home in Germany. She never managed to speak to her before her death.

Janet first absconded from the female-only ward on the morning of 12 March 2015, and was found by a farmer in a field and returned by police.

She absconded again later that night and is thought to have gone over the wall, the inquest heard. CCTV footage showed her walking in the early hours of 13 March in Brighton. Her body was found in the car near Ifield golf club near Horsham in West Sussex.

When she learned her daughter was missing, Müller, a paramedic and teacher at a school in Berlin, flew to the UK to search for her. She was met at Eastbourne station by Selina. “I told her: ‘Don’t worry. We will find her.’ And she said to me: ‘Mama. They’ve found her. She’s dead.’”

The family have no idea how she came to be in the car. She had been severely beaten before being burned alive. An inquest found she died from fire fumes inhalation. She had no known connections to Jeffrey-Shaw. “There are so many unanswered questions. Why did she end up with him, not knowing him at all?” said her mother.

Jeffrey-Shaw, who has previous convictions for blackmail and harassment, was charged and convicted of manslaughter at Guildford crown court, but his trial yielded no answers. He admitted setting the car alight, but claimed he did not know the student was in the boot. He told the court he had been involved with drug dealers who borrowed his hire car for a robbery which went wrong and who ordered him to torch it.

The judge, rejecting his account, said the only reason he was not guilty of murder, “is because you did not have the human decency to check if the person in the boot of your car was dead or alive”.

An inquest jury, which agreed a verdict of unlawful killing, found lack of communication between healthcare staff, insufficient records and inadequate risk assessment were contributory, with no extra measures taken after she first absconded, and staff shortages and building works also factors.

Janet’s mother and sister have settled with the trust after issuing a civil claim under the Human Rights Act.

Sam Allen, the trust’s chief executive, admitted: “We failed in our duty of care to Janet, for which I am truly sorry.”

In a public apology, she said: “I want to give my personal assurance that we have worked hard to address the shortcomings identified following Janet’s tragic, untimely death.

“Words of apology from me cannot bring Janet back. The awful events that happened after she absconded from our care will forever be borne by her family.”

Janet’s mother said it had been “a long, hard fight” to get the trust to admit its mistakes, but she had been determined “to get justice for Janet, to force them to make changes, to speak out. Janet’s voice has to be heard, and things should not and must not happen again.”

The family had been devastated by Janet’s death, her mother said. Janet’s sister had abandoned her studies in UK. Once part of a close threesome, both feel responsible for not having done enough to save Janet, she said.

She hoped now the same mistakes could not be repeated. “For us it is too late. Nothing can change what happened to us. Janet will not come back. No apology, nothing, can do that. It’s all too late,” she said.

Disruption of daily rhythms linked to mental health problems

People who experience disrupted 24-hour cycles of rest and activity are more likely to have mood disorders, lower levels of happiness and greater feelings of loneliness, research suggests.

While the study does not reveal whether disruptions to circadian rhythms are a cause of mental health problems, a result of them or some mixture of the two, the authors say the findings highlight the importance of how we balance rest and activity.

“Because people have these 24-hour patterns of living nowadays and because by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities where circadian disruption is much more likely, it is quite a big public health issue. How do we take account of our natural patterns of rest and activity and how do we design cities or jobs to protect people’s mental health?” said Daniel Smith, professor of psychiatry at the University of Glasgow and lead author of the research.

Writing in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, a team of researchers from Scotland, Ireland and Sweden report how they carried out the largest study of its kind to date by harnessing data from the UK BioBank, a research endeavour that has collected health information on 500,000 participants, aged between 37 and 73, since 2006.

To explore the link between mental health and the 24-hour cycles of sleep and activity known as circadian rhythms, the team looked at data from more than 91,000 participants who had worn a wrist-based activity tracker for a week at some point between 2013 and 2015.

“[It collects] 100 movement data points in three dimensions per second over a seven [day] period,” said Smith.

The team then looked at how active individuals were on average during their most active 10 hours each day compared to their least active five hours to calculate a figure known as the relative amplitude.

“What that tells us is about the inconsistency or the disruption in the regularity of the routine of rest and activity,” said Smith. “People who are active during the day and sleep well at night, that is a very healthy profile … they would have a high score in relative amplitude. Whereas people who tend to be disturbed in their sleep, are up a couple of times in the night and conversely tend to be not very active during the day, they score low in relative amplitude.”

The researchers then looked at the results from questionnaires completed by the participants when they signed up as a participant to the UK Biobank that probed factors including loneliness, reaction times and neuroticism, as well as participants’ responses to a later questionnaire probing whether they had ever had depression or bipolar disorder. While not all participants who wore a tracker answered all questions, the team say the sample is large enough to unpick links.

Participants were then divided into five groups of almost equal size, based on their relative amplitude, and the results analysed.

The findings reveal that once factors including age, sex, season during which the tracker was worn, socioeconomic status, smoking status and experience of childhood trauma were taken into account, a low relative amplitude appeared to be linked to poorer mental health.

On moving from one group to the next lowest for relative amplitude, the team found among other results that the odds of loneliness increased by 9%, and ever having had depression or bipolar disorder by 6% and 11% respectively. Meanwhile, measures of happiness and health satisfaction dropped, and reaction times became slower.

While Smith admitted the figures were small, he said they were noteworthy. “This is important because it seems to be across the board,” he said, “so it is a very consistent finding for these negative mental health and cognitive outcomes.” Smith added that it was striking that the link remained even when so many factors were taken into account.

However, the study had limitations, including that the activity data was only collected during one week, and at a different time to the questionnaire data, and that it did not look at teenagers – an important time of life both in terms of mental health and the body clock.

Dr Paul Kelley of the Open University welcomed the study, saying its findings added to a growing body of research linking circadian rhythms and mental health. But, he added, it was important to note that body clocks differ between individuals, meaning flexibility is important in both the workplace and schools. “There is no timing that is optimal for everyone,” he said.

Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

It’s mental health awareness week, 2018. And that’s good. It’s important to be aware of something that affects literally everyone, and that a quarter of the population regularly struggle with. It’s weird that anyone wouldn’t be when you put it in those terms, but that does seem to the case.

Perhaps the term is a bit misleading, or not specific enough. It’s not exactly mental health that people need to be made aware of, so much as the fact that mental health can, and regularly does, go wrong. And when someone’s mental health does falter or fail, they should receive the same concern and help that someone with a more obvious “physical” ailment should get, not scorn and stigma, as often happens.

This is where awareness helps. If you end up with depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition, it can be hugely debilitating, often consuming your daily existence. Having someone, be they a family member or total stranger, dismiss it outright or accuse you of “faking it” or similar can only make it worse, compounding the problem.

This is how campaigns to raise awareness of the issues can be beneficial. Just like how increased exposure to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds has been shown to reduced feelings of prejudice and suspicion, so increased exposure to, or discussions about, mental health problems and what they mean for those who deal with them can enhance the understanding, or even just the patience, of those who don’t have to.

The human brain, powerful as it is, can still be overwhelmed by the complex world we inhabit, so when it comes to creating mental models of how the world works, it operates a general “stick to what you know” policy. As such, things that are different or unfamiliar, especially if they’re confusing and uncertain or introduce an element of perceived threat or danger, are met with suspicion, doubt, dismissal and so on. All are defence mechanisms, in a way; it’s the brain saying “this is NOT how the world is meant to work, so I must dismiss this challenging new information”.

But the brain is not that inflexible. Our idea of how the world (and those in it) works is adaptable and ever-updating, based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. And if those experiences involve people discussing mental health and the issues around it, that’s more likely to become part of how we see the world and so has less chance of unsettling us overall.

Woman with her head in her hands as levels of anxiety among British people are rising, a mental health charity has warned. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday May 12, 2014. Almost one in five people from around the UK feels anxious a lot or all the time, the Mental Health Foundation said. A survey conducted by the charity found that almost half of Britons feel more anxious than they used to. Around three-fifths of the 2,300 British adults polled said that they experience anxiety on a daily basis.


There have been many years of progress, but still the most common image in any mental health search is the classic ‘headclutcher’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

This is especially important for mental health, as opposed to more physical ailments, because mental health problems often affect people’s minds and understanding rather than their bodies (although there’s copious overlap). Basically, someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis may not realise this. Many need help and assistance to even accept they have an issue that requires dealing with. And the more there are people around them who are “aware” of mental health problems and how they manifest, the more likely this assistance is.

So, yes. Mental health awareness is good.

But it’s not an answer in and of itself. And it can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

The main problem is, the human brain is very good at becoming aware of things, but it’s a lot harder for this awareness to lead to changes in behaviour. Abstract concepts and understanding can be useful, but things that cause strong sensory or emotional reactions carry more “weight” as far as our grey matter is concerned. For instance, dieting is hard because although we know the risks of high-calorie foods etc, we like pizza and cake. The sensory pleasure you get from the latter often outweighs the intangible understanding of the former when it comes to deciding what to do and what decisions to make. Cigarette packaging has been emblazoned with images of the ghastly consequences smoking can have for years, and yet smoking is still pretty common.

Similarly, having an abstract awareness of mental health issues does not automatically translate to a willingness or ability to do anything about them. Someone may be newly aware of what’s happening when a friend is in the grips of depression, but they could also be aware that helping them is likely to be demanding, stressful and largely unrewarding. The latter could well be what sways their behaviour, compelling them to keep their distance rather than intervene.

The point is, raising awareness of mental health is all well and good, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the problems and concerns around mental health will be affected in any appreciable way. Many people are “aware” that their clothes are probably made in sweatshops, or that their elected leaders are corrupt, or that their car is harming the environment, but do little or nothing about these things.

Prozac capsules


Often the discussion around mental health turns into one about the pros and cons of medication, but many people struggle to get to the point where that’s even an option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The danger essentially lies in people thinking “raising awareness” is sufficient to deal with the issue, whatever it may be. In most cases, it isn’t. And this isn’t ideal. It’s a common complaint, about the people who, following a tragedy, change their profile pic on Facebook, or tweet “thoughts and prayers”, or sign a petition, or what have you. While an action like that may be 100% well intended, all it really achieves is making the individual feel better because they’ve “done something”. A sense of control in the face of unpleasant events in the world is restored: a sense of achievement at getting something “out there”. But in real-world terms, it changes nothing. And people feeling like they’ve done something when they haven’t is counterproductive when it comes to dealing with big, complex problems like mental health, because they’re less likely to feel motivated to do something else. Something that may be genuinely useful.

Essentially, mental health awareness is fine, but action is what’s actually needed. Awareness is great for prompting those with issues to seek help, but effectively meaningless if there’s no help available. And with ongoing cuts and shocking provisions to mental health services, that’s where the real problems lie.

If mental health awareness can be channelled in to actually dealing with the issues around it, then that would be great. But raising awareness is just the start of the process, not the end. There’s a lot of work that needs doing here. And that’s something we should all be aware of.

Dean Burnett discusses these issues further in his new book The Happy Brain and his previous book The Idiot Brain, both available now.

Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

It’s mental health awareness week, 2018. And that’s good. It’s important to be aware of something that affects literally everyone, and that a quarter of the population regularly struggle with. It’s weird that anyone wouldn’t be when you put it in those terms, but that does seem to the case.

Perhaps the term is a bit misleading, or not specific enough. It’s not exactly mental health that people need to be made aware of, so much as the fact that mental health can, and regularly does, go wrong. And when someone’s mental health does falter or fail, they should receive the same concern and help that someone with a more obvious “physical” ailment should get, not scorn and stigma, as often happens.

This is where awareness helps. If you end up with depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition, it can be hugely debilitating, often consuming your daily existence. Having someone, be they a family member or total stranger, dismiss it outright or accuse you of “faking it” or similar can only make it worse, compounding the problem.

This is how campaigns to raise awareness of the issues can be beneficial. Just like how increased exposure to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds has been shown to reduced feelings of prejudice and suspicion, so increased exposure to, or discussions about, mental health problems and what they mean for those who deal with them can enhance the understanding, or even just the patience, of those who don’t have to.

The human brain, powerful as it is, can still be overwhelmed by the complex world we inhabit, so when it comes to creating mental models of how the world works, it operates a general “stick to what you know” policy. As such, things that are different or unfamiliar, especially if they’re confusing and uncertain or introduce an element of perceived threat or danger, are met with suspicion, doubt, dismissal and so on. All are defence mechanisms, in a way; it’s the brain saying “this is NOT how the world is meant to work, so I must dismiss this challenging new information”.

But the brain is not that inflexible. Our idea of how the world (and those in it) works is adaptable and ever-updating, based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. And if those experiences involve people discussing mental health and the issues around it, that’s more likely to become part of how we see the world and so has less chance of unsettling us overall.

Woman with her head in her hands as levels of anxiety among British people are rising, a mental health charity has warned. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday May 12, 2014. Almost one in five people from around the UK feels anxious a lot or all the time, the Mental Health Foundation said. A survey conducted by the charity found that almost half of Britons feel more anxious than they used to. Around three-fifths of the 2,300 British adults polled said that they experience anxiety on a daily basis.


There have been many years of progress, but still the most common image in any mental health search is the classic ‘headclutcher’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

This is especially important for mental health, as opposed to more physical ailments, because mental health problems often affect people’s minds and understanding rather than their bodies (although there’s copious overlap). Basically, someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis may not realise this. Many need help and assistance to even accept they have an issue that requires dealing with. And the more there are people around them who are “aware” of mental health problems and how they manifest, the more likely this assistance is.

So, yes. Mental health awareness is good.

But it’s not an answer in and of itself. And it can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

The main problem is, the human brain is very good at becoming aware of things, but it’s a lot harder for this awareness to lead to changes in behaviour. Abstract concepts and understanding can be useful, but things that cause strong sensory or emotional reactions carry more “weight” as far as our grey matter is concerned. For instance, dieting is hard because although we know the risks of high-calorie foods etc, we like pizza and cake. The sensory pleasure you get from the latter often outweighs the intangible understanding of the former when it comes to deciding what to do and what decisions to make. Cigarette packaging has been emblazoned with images of the ghastly consequences smoking can have for years, and yet smoking is still pretty common.

Similarly, having an abstract awareness of mental health issues does not automatically translate to a willingness or ability to do anything about them. Someone may be newly aware of what’s happening when a friend is in the grips of depression, but they could also be aware that helping them is likely to be demanding, stressful and largely unrewarding. The latter could well be what sways their behaviour, compelling them to keep their distance rather than intervene.

The point is, raising awareness of mental health is all well and good, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the problems and concerns around mental health will be affected in any appreciable way. Many people are “aware” that their clothes are probably made in sweatshops, or that their elected leaders are corrupt, or that their car is harming the environment, but do little or nothing about these things.

Prozac capsules


Often the discussion around mental health turns into one about the pros and cons of medication, but many people struggle to get to the point where that’s even an option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The danger essentially lies in people thinking “raising awareness” is sufficient to deal with the issue, whatever it may be. In most cases, it isn’t. And this isn’t ideal. It’s a common complaint, about the people who, following a tragedy, change their profile pic on Facebook, or tweet “thoughts and prayers”, or sign a petition, or what have you. While an action like that may be 100% well intended, all it really achieves is making the individual feel better because they’ve “done something”. A sense of control in the face of unpleasant events in the world is restored: a sense of achievement at getting something “out there”. But in real-world terms, it changes nothing. And people feeling like they’ve done something when they haven’t is counterproductive when it comes to dealing with big, complex problems like mental health, because they’re less likely to feel motivated to do something else. Something that may be genuinely useful.

Essentially, mental health awareness is fine, but action is what’s actually needed. Awareness is great for prompting those with issues to seek help, but effectively meaningless if there’s no help available. And with ongoing cuts and shocking provisions to mental health services, that’s where the real problems lie.

If mental health awareness can be channelled in to actually dealing with the issues around it, then that would be great. But raising awareness is just the start of the process, not the end. There’s a lot of work that needs doing here. And that’s something we should all be aware of.

Dean Burnett discusses these issues further in his new book The Happy Brain and his previous book The Idiot Brain, both available now.

Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

It’s mental health awareness week, 2018. And that’s good. It’s important to be aware of something that affects literally everyone, and that a quarter of the population regularly struggle with. It’s weird that anyone wouldn’t be when you put it in those terms, but that does seem to the case.

Perhaps the term is a bit misleading, or not specific enough. It’s not exactly mental health that people need to be made aware of, so much as the fact that mental health can, and regularly does, go wrong. And when someone’s mental health does falter or fail, they should receive the same concern and help that someone with a more obvious “physical” ailment should get, not scorn and stigma, as often happens.

This is where awareness helps. If you end up with depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition, it can be hugely debilitating, often consuming your daily existence. Having someone, be they a family member or total stranger, dismiss it outright or accuse you of “faking it” or similar can only make it worse, compounding the problem.

This is how campaigns to raise awareness of the issues can be beneficial. Just like how increased exposure to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds has been shown to reduced feelings of prejudice and suspicion, so increased exposure to, or discussions about, mental health problems and what they mean for those who deal with them can enhance the understanding, or even just the patience, of those who don’t have to.

The human brain, powerful as it is, can still be overwhelmed by the complex world we inhabit, so when it comes to creating mental models of how the world works, it operates a general “stick to what you know” policy. As such, things that are different or unfamiliar, especially if they’re confusing and uncertain or introduce an element of perceived threat or danger, are met with suspicion, doubt, dismissal and so on. All are defence mechanisms, in a way; it’s the brain saying “this is NOT how the world is meant to work, so I must dismiss this challenging new information”.

But the brain is not that inflexible. Our idea of how the world (and those in it) works is adaptable and ever-updating, based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. And if those experiences involve people discussing mental health and the issues around it, that’s more likely to become part of how we see the world and so has less chance of unsettling us overall.

Woman with her head in her hands as levels of anxiety among British people are rising, a mental health charity has warned. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday May 12, 2014. Almost one in five people from around the UK feels anxious a lot or all the time, the Mental Health Foundation said. A survey conducted by the charity found that almost half of Britons feel more anxious than they used to. Around three-fifths of the 2,300 British adults polled said that they experience anxiety on a daily basis.


There have been many years of progress, but still the most common image in any mental health search is the classic ‘headclutcher’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

This is especially important for mental health, as opposed to more physical ailments, because mental health problems often affect people’s minds and understanding rather than their bodies (although there’s copious overlap). Basically, someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis may not realise this. Many need help and assistance to even accept they have an issue that requires dealing with. And the more there are people around them who are “aware” of mental health problems and how they manifest, the more likely this assistance is.

So, yes. Mental health awareness is good.

But it’s not an answer in and of itself. And it can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

The main problem is, the human brain is very good at becoming aware of things, but it’s a lot harder for this awareness to lead to changes in behaviour. Abstract concepts and understanding can be useful, but things that cause strong sensory or emotional reactions carry more “weight” as far as our grey matter is concerned. For instance, dieting is hard because although we know the risks of high-calorie foods etc, we like pizza and cake. The sensory pleasure you get from the latter often outweighs the intangible understanding of the former when it comes to deciding what to do and what decisions to make. Cigarette packaging has been emblazoned with images of the ghastly consequences smoking can have for years, and yet smoking is still pretty common.

Similarly, having an abstract awareness of mental health issues does not automatically translate to a willingness or ability to do anything about them. Someone may be newly aware of what’s happening when a friend is in the grips of depression, but they could also be aware that helping them is likely to be demanding, stressful and largely unrewarding. The latter could well be what sways their behaviour, compelling them to keep their distance rather than intervene.

The point is, raising awareness of mental health is all well and good, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the problems and concerns around mental health will be affected in any appreciable way. Many people are “aware” that their clothes are probably made in sweatshops, or that their elected leaders are corrupt, or that their car is harming the environment, but do little or nothing about these things.

Prozac capsules


Often the discussion around mental health turns into one about the pros and cons of medication, but many people struggle to get to the point where that’s even an option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The danger essentially lies in people thinking “raising awareness” is sufficient to deal with the issue, whatever it may be. In most cases, it isn’t. And this isn’t ideal. It’s a common complaint, about the people who, following a tragedy, change their profile pic on Facebook, or tweet “thoughts and prayers”, or sign a petition, or what have you. While an action like that may be 100% well intended, all it really achieves is making the individual feel better because they’ve “done something”. A sense of control in the face of unpleasant events in the world is restored: a sense of achievement at getting something “out there”. But in real-world terms, it changes nothing. And people feeling like they’ve done something when they haven’t is counterproductive when it comes to dealing with big, complex problems like mental health, because they’re less likely to feel motivated to do something else. Something that may be genuinely useful.

Essentially, mental health awareness is fine, but action is what’s actually needed. Awareness is great for prompting those with issues to seek help, but effectively meaningless if there’s no help available. And with ongoing cuts and shocking provisions to mental health services, that’s where the real problems lie.

If mental health awareness can be channelled in to actually dealing with the issues around it, then that would be great. But raising awareness is just the start of the process, not the end. There’s a lot of work that needs doing here. And that’s something we should all be aware of.

Dean Burnett discusses these issues further in his new book The Happy Brain and his previous book The Idiot Brain, both available now.

Mental health: awareness is great, but action is essential | Dean Burnett

It’s mental health awareness week, 2018. And that’s good. It’s important to be aware of something that affects literally everyone, and that a quarter of the population regularly struggle with. It’s weird that anyone wouldn’t be when you put it in those terms, but that does seem to the case.

Perhaps the term is a bit misleading, or not specific enough. It’s not exactly mental health that people need to be made aware of, so much as the fact that mental health can, and regularly does, go wrong. And when someone’s mental health does falter or fail, they should receive the same concern and help that someone with a more obvious “physical” ailment should get, not scorn and stigma, as often happens.

This is where awareness helps. If you end up with depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition, it can be hugely debilitating, often consuming your daily existence. Having someone, be they a family member or total stranger, dismiss it outright or accuse you of “faking it” or similar can only make it worse, compounding the problem.

This is how campaigns to raise awareness of the issues can be beneficial. Just like how increased exposure to people of different ethnicities or backgrounds has been shown to reduced feelings of prejudice and suspicion, so increased exposure to, or discussions about, mental health problems and what they mean for those who deal with them can enhance the understanding, or even just the patience, of those who don’t have to.

The human brain, powerful as it is, can still be overwhelmed by the complex world we inhabit, so when it comes to creating mental models of how the world works, it operates a general “stick to what you know” policy. As such, things that are different or unfamiliar, especially if they’re confusing and uncertain or introduce an element of perceived threat or danger, are met with suspicion, doubt, dismissal and so on. All are defence mechanisms, in a way; it’s the brain saying “this is NOT how the world is meant to work, so I must dismiss this challenging new information”.

But the brain is not that inflexible. Our idea of how the world (and those in it) works is adaptable and ever-updating, based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. And if those experiences involve people discussing mental health and the issues around it, that’s more likely to become part of how we see the world and so has less chance of unsettling us overall.

Woman with her head in her hands as levels of anxiety among British people are rising, a mental health charity has warned. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday May 12, 2014. Almost one in five people from around the UK feels anxious a lot or all the time, the Mental Health Foundation said. A survey conducted by the charity found that almost half of Britons feel more anxious than they used to. Around three-fifths of the 2,300 British adults polled said that they experience anxiety on a daily basis.


There have been many years of progress, but still the most common image in any mental health search is the classic ‘headclutcher’. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

This is especially important for mental health, as opposed to more physical ailments, because mental health problems often affect people’s minds and understanding rather than their bodies (although there’s copious overlap). Basically, someone experiencing a mental health problem or crisis may not realise this. Many need help and assistance to even accept they have an issue that requires dealing with. And the more there are people around them who are “aware” of mental health problems and how they manifest, the more likely this assistance is.

So, yes. Mental health awareness is good.

But it’s not an answer in and of itself. And it can actually be detrimental in some circumstances.

The main problem is, the human brain is very good at becoming aware of things, but it’s a lot harder for this awareness to lead to changes in behaviour. Abstract concepts and understanding can be useful, but things that cause strong sensory or emotional reactions carry more “weight” as far as our grey matter is concerned. For instance, dieting is hard because although we know the risks of high-calorie foods etc, we like pizza and cake. The sensory pleasure you get from the latter often outweighs the intangible understanding of the former when it comes to deciding what to do and what decisions to make. Cigarette packaging has been emblazoned with images of the ghastly consequences smoking can have for years, and yet smoking is still pretty common.

Similarly, having an abstract awareness of mental health issues does not automatically translate to a willingness or ability to do anything about them. Someone may be newly aware of what’s happening when a friend is in the grips of depression, but they could also be aware that helping them is likely to be demanding, stressful and largely unrewarding. The latter could well be what sways their behaviour, compelling them to keep their distance rather than intervene.

The point is, raising awareness of mental health is all well and good, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the problems and concerns around mental health will be affected in any appreciable way. Many people are “aware” that their clothes are probably made in sweatshops, or that their elected leaders are corrupt, or that their car is harming the environment, but do little or nothing about these things.

Prozac capsules


Often the discussion around mental health turns into one about the pros and cons of medication, but many people struggle to get to the point where that’s even an option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The danger essentially lies in people thinking “raising awareness” is sufficient to deal with the issue, whatever it may be. In most cases, it isn’t. And this isn’t ideal. It’s a common complaint, about the people who, following a tragedy, change their profile pic on Facebook, or tweet “thoughts and prayers”, or sign a petition, or what have you. While an action like that may be 100% well intended, all it really achieves is making the individual feel better because they’ve “done something”. A sense of control in the face of unpleasant events in the world is restored: a sense of achievement at getting something “out there”. But in real-world terms, it changes nothing. And people feeling like they’ve done something when they haven’t is counterproductive when it comes to dealing with big, complex problems like mental health, because they’re less likely to feel motivated to do something else. Something that may be genuinely useful.

Essentially, mental health awareness is fine, but action is what’s actually needed. Awareness is great for prompting those with issues to seek help, but effectively meaningless if there’s no help available. And with ongoing cuts and shocking provisions to mental health services, that’s where the real problems lie.

If mental health awareness can be channelled in to actually dealing with the issues around it, then that would be great. But raising awareness is just the start of the process, not the end. There’s a lot of work that needs doing here. And that’s something we should all be aware of.

Dean Burnett discusses these issues further in his new book The Happy Brain and his previous book The Idiot Brain, both available now.